It was Varus’ fault. The line was spread too thin; discipline among the men far too lax. Secure in his position, he allowed them to mix with the travelers rather than staying in formation. Three legions of Romans we were, and civilians besides. To even attempt an attack on such a company would be madness.
Or so Varus, in his arrogance, believed.
The Germans knew the route we would take. Indeed, their own leader walked amongst us, guiding us to the very road he planned to slaughter us on. What better way to destroy your enemy than from within, eh Arminius? Though I curse you with the blood of every man I lost, you were the better general, and the night was yours.
They attacked without warning. The curs waited until we were neck deep in this accursed forest before they came. Our men, lax in their discipline, fell quickly into confusion. Thousands died. Of my own century I cannot account for a single man. The rain fell hard even through the trees. It was hard to see. How many fell to a friend’s blade, I wonder? No matter. I am lost, I am alone, and I am hunted.
I, Lucius Artorius. Centurion of the Roman Empire. Master of war; leader of soldiers; father; husband. All these and more am I. But I am also guilty. The Germans held the sword and the spear, to be sure; but I allowed my men the freedom that cost them their lives. I allowed them to walk out of formation. To flirt with maids and to talk with friends. What could a Roman fear with a sword brother at his side? The answer is learned too late, and its bitterness stings my mouth.
And now, trapped in this accursed forest I wander. Driven by the ambush I sought refuge in the shadows of the trees. Five of them followed me, and not one draws breath now. But our fight took me far from the caravan and my ears lost the screams of the dying. Now in the gray mist of the morning I search for some sign- some track that might lead me again to what remains of my kin. Ah, but it is hopeless! The ground, soaked from the rains of last night and the mist this morning, bears no tracks. The trees which should be echoing with birdsong are silent. In my escape I have stumbled into a far more evil place than the slaughter I escaped.
The creature follows me at a distance. It always remains behind me, just out of sight. Still, there is no doubt it is there. I can hear its soft breath, low and stalking. Occasionally I will hear the crush of a footfall as it shifts its weight on the wet needles. Many times I have spun to catch a fleeting glimpse of it as it secrets itself behind a tree. Each time the picture becomes more fearsome.
I lost my sword in my flight. It was torn from my hand when I wedged it between the ribs of one of my pursuers. My shield too, having been splintered on the skulls of the final two Germans who had chased me. My breastplate had taken two German arrows early in the attack, but was otherwise undamaged. Still, its weight slows me considerably. Depending on when the creature decides to strike, it may be lost to the need for speed.
I’m familiar with the rumors of the creature. You cannot be stationed far abroad without soon hearing of the local myths. The Germans call it Ördög. We Romans have come to call it the ‘Black Witch.’ They say it haunts the forest, a demon from the pit itself. It steals children and goats, and sometimes lonely travelers. Until this morning I had believed it to be nonsense, but I cannot deny the thing I have glimpsed is neither man or beast but some unholy union of both.
The villagers say it is a trickster, sometimes appearing as a fawn and sometimes as a man. Rumors claim some have even outsmarted the Ördög into riches and long life, but seeing it in the flesh gives me little confidence in their truth. A killer knows a killer, and this thing has killed more than I can dream.
Too late I realize that it is not only hunting me, but it is shepherding me as well. Sometimes it will circle a certain direction behind me, causing me to change my direction. I had thought these maneuvers to be random, but as I find myself coming to a clearing boxed in on two sides by a sheer rock wall I have again proved the lesser general. This was where the creature wanted me this entire time, and I played right into its hands.
The clearing is void of anything I might use as a weapon. It crosses my mind that this may well be intentional. Instead, only soggy pine needles are underfoot. The mist clings to the trees along the edge of the clearing like frightened children to their parents. In it I see faces of ghosts, ghastly skulls silently gaping their jaws at me before rolling back into their cloudy prison. This could be the work of the Ördög, or it could only be my apprehension.
But I am no coward. Man or monster, it should matter little to Lucius Artorius.
“Show yourself, creature. I am not afraid,” I shout, turning my back to the rocks and watching the treeline keenly.
It speaks, but remains hidden. Its voice, high and nasal, seems to come from all around me, echoing off the rock wall to my back. “In my experience,” it hisses, “it is those who are most afraid who insist otherwise.”
“It is not fear that drives me, but wariness, “ I respond. “Friends rarely lurk in the shadows like thieves.”
“Thief?” The voice is on my right now. “How amusing you use the very charge I have against you in your complaints against me.”
I wait for a few moments. I still cannot see any sign of the creature. The unholy silence of the forest creeps into my bones, filling me with dread.
“You charge me as thief?” I call out, “What have I stolen from you? I’m merely a traveler passing through.”
“Traveler yes,” it wheezes from the mist, “your passage, however, has not yet been allowed for. You have already amassed quite a debt during your time in my home.”
“Debt? What is this debt you speak of?”
The creature emerges from behind a tree, mist crawling across him as he enters the clearing. Its hideous; thick mats of black hair cover its goat-like legs, so much so that its hooves are barely discernible. Its chest is broad, hairless, and muscular like a man, but its skin is more like buckskin and black as a starless sky. Its head is shaggy and much like a goat’s as well, but its horns are long and thin, coming to small sharp points. How many, I wondered have found themselves disemboweled on the tips of those cursed horns?
“You killed five guests in my house,” the Ördög croaks. “If I did such as this in your home, would you not feel the same?” It tilted its head as it questioned, approaching slowly.
“Those men sought my life. You would deny me my defense?” I reply. I can smell the thing now, putrid and rotting. I can see bits of gore clinging to the fur of its legs.
“In the city you hail from, if a man seeks your life do you not take him before the highest authorities?” it replies. It sidesteps carefully from hoof to hoof, slowly circling me.
“That is true, creature, but we are not in my city.”
“Aye, aye, you are not. You are in mine.” It stresses ‘mine’ with a growl and snaps its jaws at me, causing me to crouch into a defensive stance. It chuckles at this. “Come now. If I were going to kill you I would have done it already. Still, there is the matter of the debt….”
“What of it? I owe you nothing.”
“You owe me five lives, centurion. That is no small price.”
“Five lives? That is preposterous. I did nothing that you would have not done yourself.”
“You cannot fathom what I might do, and do not presume to. Five lives is the price I require.”
The creature was frustrating me. It continued to circle, constantly keeping me shifting my position. A shrewd behavior on its part, for I was forced to give up sure footing to keep my eyes on it.
“How would I repay such a thing?” I asked it. “I cannot return their breath, or their heads to their shoulders. I am no conjurer.”
“Ah!” it clapped its hands. I must have responded to its liking.
“It would be unfair of me to require you to know the laws of my home, since you are a foreigner. Therefore, let us leave it to chance! I decree that your repayment shall be through sport. Do you accept this judgment?”
“I cannot agree when I do not know what your sport will require, creature.”
At this the Ördög held out its hand, opening it for me to see. In the center of its palm lay a ten-sided die, carved from some black rock of the pit, no doubt. Each face held a different run in white chalk carved into the surface.
“The dice of Oorn,” it says in what I take to be an admiring tone. ”Used to decide fates of worlds long past. Your repayment will neither be decided by me, nor by you, but we will let the dice decide. What say you?”
“If I refuse?” I ask.
The Ördög frowned at this and stopped pacing. He walked to the edge of the clearing and picked up a fallen branch.
“Tell me, centurion,” it said, its voice losing the cheerful tone and taking on a dangerous edge, “Would you say you have killed many men in your time?”
“I would say I have killed enough.”
“And…” the Ördög continued, holding the branch out before him vertically, examining it, “because of this, do you believe you could defeat me in single combat? And do not lie.”
“I think if I had not lost my sword we would not be having this conversation.”
“Then let me be clear on this,” the Ördög said, taking the branch with both hands, “You are only alive for the sport you can bring me here and now. In a moment’s time, if I so choose…” it trailed off and snapped the branch across its knee. In the same moment the bones of my right arm splintered, splitting the flesh in a jagged bloom of agony. I cried out in shock and surprise, reaching helplessly for my injured arm, blood running down my now-useless elbow.
“…if I so choose,” it continued, taking the splintered stick between its hands, “you can experience a fate worse than any death you might imagine. So I warn you this once, do not take my hospitality lightly. Already you try my patience.” It slid its hands down the length of the stick, which was again made whole. My arm too returned to its healthy state instantly as it did this, and I was left clutching for an injury no longer there.
“Do we understand each other?” the Ördög asked with what must be a smile.
“You have…a persuasive way…of putting things,” I gasp, trying to slow my racing heart.
“Mmmm,” it responded.
I’m furious at my powerlessness, but if the Ördög notices he pays no mind. He has made it clear that he is the one in control.
“Lets see, we will need a place to play…” it muses to itself, stalking around the clearing. For a moment I consider trying my luck at running, but a muscle twinge in my arm causes me to reconsider.
Whatever it was looking for, it must have found, for it says “Ah, this will do,” and it holds out its hand palm down even with the ground. For a moment nothing happens; but then the wet needles begin to part and a tree stump rises from the ground. The stump is flat on top, and the Ördög takes the dice and places it in its center.
“Here you are. Roll please.”
“What do the symbols mean?” I ask, hoping against hope that my stalling will somehow allow me escape.
“I will explain them as the come up. Roll.”
I step to the stump and pick up the dice. Its cool to the touch, and lighter than I expected.
“Roll,” the Ördög instructs again.
Taking a breath and holding it, I shake the dice in my fist and throw it to the stump. It rolls around for a moment before coming to a rest, a white square facing up.
The Ördög frowns, obviously displeased with the outcome.
“Well?” I ask.
“That is a ‘net.’ It means you are absolved of one instance.”
“Absolved? You mean I only owe four?”
“Yes. That is what it means. Roll again.”
I smile at my good fortune and pick up the dice again. Again I shake and again I roll it onto the stump. This time a different symbol comes up, a circle with a small line penetrating it. The Ördög seems pleased by this, crossing his arms and standing up straight.
“That is a ‘pine.’ It means a single debt carries.”
I shake the dice a third time and roll. I’m relieved to see another ‘net’ come up. The Ördög does not look pleased but says nothing, merely nodding to the dice.
My fourth roll brings up a new symbol, two diagonal slashes. At these the Ördög bares his teeth in what must be its hideous smile. “That is the ‘tell.’ It means that you owe double the cost of the roll.”
“Double?” I exclaim.
“Double,” it repeats back to me. “You have one more roll, centurion.”
I take the dice from its place on the stump. I consider hurling it into the forest, but the Ördög, either reading my mind or experienced in the matter speaks, “In the case of a lost dice, the price is an automatic triple,” it says.
I shake the oorn and toss it onto the stump. It tumbles once, twice, three times, and then comes to rest. I open my eyes, not remembering shutting them, and look.
The Ördög hisses in disgust, obviously displeased by the outcome. He snatches the oorn from the tree stump and secreting it away again somewhere beneath his fur.
“The debt is decided. The final tally is one ‘pine’ and one ‘tell’ meaning you owe me three lives. The oorn has spoken,” it says somewhat ceremoniously.
“And again I remind you, I can do nothing to replace the men I killed. Therefore the debt is void.”
“You cannot return the lives you have taken, it is truly said. You can, however, REPLACE them,” the Ördög smiles at this.
I’m confused by this at first. How do you replace a life that is taken?
“Children,” I say, realization overtaking me. “You want me to bring you children.”
It nods, grinning its disgusting smile.
“No. I won’t.”
The Ördög stops smiling.
“I will not give my sons and daughters to you to appease your stupid game, creature. Do you hear me?”
“I warned you not to try my patience, centurion,” it says.
“Nevertheless, you will have to kill me, because I will not willingly turn three of my children over to you.”
The Ördög glares at me silently. How much time passed in that span before it spoke again, I am not sure.
“Very well. You will not participate willingly, so unwillingly it will be.”
It clenches its fist, and my body contracts, freezing me in place. Every muscle disobeys my furious attempts to move. The Ördög approached me slowly, fist still clenched. Stopping only inches from me, its stink enough to bring tears to my eyes, it brings its hand up to its mouth. Sticking out its long purple tongue, it licks its thumb, and smears the saliva in a horizontal line across my forehead.
“Each new moon I shall visit you,” it says. “You will not know me until you see me, and when you see me your body will be forfeit. I will take your body and I will walk the land, seeking maids willing and weak of character. I will do this until you have repaid your debt in full and I have my three children. Because you have proven yourself untrustworthy, you will remember none of my travels in your body, for I have little doubt that you would seek them out for harm if given the opportunity. Farewell, centurion. I will see you again come new moon.”
I awoke to find myself in the glade, birds singing and mist burned away. There was no sign of the Ördög or the stump it raised, and I questioned if it had not all been some sort of hallucination brought on by a concussion from the battle. Indeed, I found the road not one hundred meters from the glade, and soon made my way back to the aftermath of the battle. The rain had started again by the time I arrived, finding my countrymen engaged in a costly push to break through the German lines. We lost many men in the battle, but managed to break through into the open country of the north. I thought our fortunes had changed, but I was foolish in my hope.
We marched at night to try and escape their numbers, but fell into another of Arminius’s traps. The Germans had built an earthen wall in anticipation of our arrival and slaughtered us from its safety. Our attempt to take the wall failed and in cowardice Numonius Vala convinced what remained of our cavalry to abandon us. Shamefully, I was taken captive during the fight. That night I was made to watch as the Germans sacrificed good Romans to their pagan gods. I myself was carried off shackled as a slave. The Germans, it seemed, knew I had some value to my people. I was eventually ransomed and returned to Rome.
My wife knew of my shame and did her best to ease it. I spoke nothing of the Ördög, attributing it to shock. Indeed, many new moons had come and gone during my time with the Germans and I had noticed nothing strange. It was not until my third month back in Rome that the creature made good on its threats.
I had taken up residence in a home in the country with my family, wanting some time to readjust to life as a free man. I was out in one of my fields walking alone when a large black crow alighted on the ground right in front of me. The bird seemed abnormally large, but I thought little of it, until I was waking up in our barn with no clue how I had gotten there. More shocking was the long black scar, already healed, crossing the bicep of my right arm. The Ördög, it seems, had made good on his promise.
In the five months that followed I would awake every morning after a new moon in a bizarre location. A second scar appeared after the third month, and a third after the fifth. My wife inquires about the strange injuries, and I do my best to allay her questions; but a creeping dread has wrapped itself around my heart that I cannot escape. The Ördög has fathered three children in Rome, and it has used me against my will to do this. What this means for my country I do not know, but only ill can come of it.